A few days ago I began exploring how writers from Plato to Sebastian Brant to Katherine Anne Porter have written about a "Ship of Fools". This was inspired by my discovery that sixteen different songs with that exact title have been written and performed by major rock, punk, folk and pop artists between 1969 and today, and that several of these songs are remarkably good.
How is it possible that a fairly obscure literary metaphor would inspire so many different songs? What makes the idea of a ship of fools so relevant to modern songwriters, and how do each of their songs imagine the idea? I will examine each song in detail below in search of an answer.
If you've heard any recent news coverage about the peace agreement between Iran, USA, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China that will hopefully move forward this week, there's a good chance this is because the opposition in USA has been so noisy. We've seen big headlines about Republican hawks inviting Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu to speak out in Congress against President Obama's plans, and about 47 Senators who signed a poorly written letter to Iran declaring no confidence in their own President's foreign policy.
News outlets and social media channels seem to be constitutionally incapable of reporting good news -- unless the good news is about panda bears or Kim Kardashian's butt. We should all feel free to forget the noise from Benjamin Netanyahu and Mitt Romney and recognize that the signing of this Iran deal will be a great and historic thing. When this agreement is signed, there ought to be dancing in the streets -- all streets, everywhere in the world.
"Do we really want writers to be okay? Just okay?" That intriguing response is one of many I elicited from J. C. Hallman, author of B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal, a bright, funny and expansive account of a rewarding and investigative personal journey through another living writer's unusual career.
This other writer is Nicholson Baker, whose dynamic and wide-ranging intelligence would intimidate many young critics with less gusto than J. C. Hallman. Baker's literary chops are immense and his philosophical and social convictions deeply inspiring, though his intellectual experiments sometimes leave even his most enthusiastic readers cold. Here is my conversation with J. C. Hallman about an author we both admire very much.
LEVI: So, in 1991 the up-and-coming author Nicholson Baker wrote a book called U and I in which he dared to place himself on nearly equal terms with the literary lion John Updike. I say "nearly equal terms" because the book avoided a conventional critical tone of piety and humility towards Updike, and instead brashly showcased the freewheeling talents and original visions of its author.
Now in 2015, you have written a book called B & Me in which you dare to place yourself on nearly equal terms with Nicholson Baker ... who is by now a literary lion in his own rights.
I'm happy to tell you that I think you pulled it off with great style. But I'm wondering if you felt intimidated by the audacity of your act in dreaming up "B & Me". Was it difficult to conjure up enough confidence in yourself as a writer to take on Nicholson Baker in the same format that Nicholson Baker once used to take on John Updike? Or rather was the audacity of this challenge one of the attractions of the project for you?
J. C.: As Baker suggests in U and I, writers should strive to avoid finding a groove and coasting for their entire careers, and I think I would actually find it hard to muster the energy a book-length project requires if didn’t appear daunting at first, if it didn’t challenge me, or even threaten me, in some way.
Which isn't to say that mustering the energy for a book is easy. Once I sold the proposal for B & Me –- a story in and of itself –- I went through about a month-long period of complete paralysis. I was terrified that all I’d done was invent a way to fail. That feeling started to go away only when I really got into the reading of Baker’s books and realized that my instincts about the project had been correct. From that point on, the book wasn’t easy to write, by any means, but it felt like an inspired project, and the process of emulating Baker emulating Updike forced me to find new reserves in myself.
GET RID OF MEANING. YOUR MIND IS A NIGHTMARE THAT HAS BEEN EATING YOU: NOW EAT YOUR MIND.
I saw Kathy Acker's name fly by in a tweet yesterday. Her name carries power for those who remember it. Alternative and transgressive literature blossoms in today's Internet-powered cultural scene, but there was a time (back when Ronald Reagan was President and a lot of things were lamer than they are today) when Kathy Acker was the only young punk writer in the world with any amount of fame. That was a lonely era for a serious indie voice of the streets, but Kathy Acker played her role with style and class.
She died of cancer in 1997, when she was only 50 years old and had a lot more writing to do. Looking back at her body of work today, it seems clear that empowerment was always her mission. Her literary role models were men -- William S. Burroughs, Charles Olsen, Jerome Rothenberg -- but her influence seems to be most strongly felt among woman writers who heard her call for empowerment via unapologetic self-expression. Her influence can be traced through many voices that have dared to be brash over the years, from Patti Smith, Mary Gaitskill, Tama Janowitz and Maggie Estep to JT Leroy, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Porochista Khakpour, Paula Bomer. Every one of these controversial writers must have had to dig deep within to find the confidence to write without fear. They may not have followed Kathy Acker's direction, but they did walk in her trail.
Twenty-five centuries ago, a Hindu scholar named Panini produced an analysis of the Sanskrit language so remarkable that later language theorists such as Ferdinand de Saussure would eventually cite it as the foundation of linguistics itself. Panini shows up in Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty, a new book by novelist and computer programmer Vikram Chandra, who describes the ancient scholar's achievement thus:
His objects of study were both the spoken language of his time, and the language of the Vedas, already a thousand years before him. He systemized both of these variations by formulating 3,976 rules that -- over eight chapters -- allow the generation of Sanskrit words and sentences from roots, which are in turn derived from phonemes and morphemes ...
The rules are of four types: (1) rules that function as definitions; (2) metarules -- that is, rules that apply to other rules; (3) headings -- rules that form the bases for other rules; and (4) operational rules. Some rules are universal while others are context sensitive; the sequence of rule application is clearly defined. Some rules can override others. Rules can call other rules, recursively. The application of one rule to a linguistic form can cause the application of other rule, which may in turn trigger other rules, until no more rules are applicable. The operational rules "carry out four basic types of operations on strings: replacement, affixation, augmentation, and compounding."
This is interesting on its own, but a reader who shares Vikram Chandra's familiarity with technology will probably notice how much fun Vikram Chandra is having here with words that have become standard computer programming jargon: "rules" and "metarules", "override", "recursion", "trigger", "operations on strings". The problems that concerned Panini as he read the Rig Veda in 400 BCE are apparently the same problems that concern software developers around the world today.
There are some days when only a very old poem will do. Sometimes a 2600-year-old poem. Here are a few selections from the Tao Te Ching, apropos of a hard day at work. -- Levi
The softest things of the world
Override the hardest things of the world
That which has no substance
Enters into that which has no openings
From this I know the benefits of unattached actions
The teaching without words
The benefits of actions without attachment
Are rarely matched in the world
"Atheists are as dull," the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote, "who cannot guess God's presence out of sight."
I don't know if atheists are dull or not, but lately I've been feeling the incredible dullness of political pundits and commentators who have nothing but gloomy cynicism to offer, who cannot see the dynamic nature of the changes that take place on this planet every day. What can be duller than a person who truly and deeply believes in statements like these about the human condition, about the prospects for the future of our world?
Nothing will ever change.
Politics is just a lot of noise.
It's a corrupt game. Only the worst people can win.
This week, USA President Barack Obama and Cuba's President Raul Castro reached a historic (though still informal) agreement to suddenly end the state of hostility that has existed between these neighbors for 53 years. The news dropped in the middle of a busy holiday season news week, briefly dominating social media and the airwaves for a few hours between other major global political stories involving CIA torture and North Korean cyberterrorism. I wonder if many people do not realize how momentous the news about Cuba is.
The horrifying report of the US Senate investigation into CIA torture during the Iraq War was released to the public this week, revealing depths of sadism and cruelty that nearly everybody but Dick Cheney considers un-American. When scandals like this are revealed, our first instinct is to look for someone else to blame.
This is a natural instinct, and I followed the instinct myself when I called out Dick Cheney above. But that was a cheap shot, and blaming others for a complex problem always feels like a moral dead end. Did we not all participate in the democratic process that led to the election of the leaders who embraced barbarity on our behalf? Are we not ourselves all to blame?
To blame ourselves seems more enlightened than to blame others. And yet, surprisingly, it brings us no closer to real understanding. Whether we blame others or ourselves, either way we are identifying a flaw in human character as the cause of a terrible problem. We are presuming that bad traits like greed or sadism or toxic ideology or ignorant apathy lead certain individuals (others, ourselves) to make wrong decisions. But we always discover that this realization doesn't improve anything, because no personal judgement will have an impact on problems like torture -- or human slavery or terrorism or genocide or any other form of geopolitical atrocity. Even when we occasionally manage to put some evildoers in jail, we don't seem to be fixing the underlying problems at all.
Imagine a bunch of people floating on rafts towards a waterfall that will soon kill them all. They are all paddling as hard as they can in a desperate attempt to save their lives. Some are using their hands, some are kicking their legs, others are trying to lash their rafts together. They are all yelling at each other that somebody else is doing it wrong, or they are crying for help because they know they are themselves doing it wrong. But the key point is this: they are all going to go over the waterfall. It doesn't matter whether they paddle with their hands or kick with their legs. It doesn't matter what any of them think, or what any of them say. They are in the grip of a force of nature. They are floating on a river that is carrying them against their will.
When we invaded Iraq in 2003, it may be the case that a CIA torture scandal was simply inevitable. It may not have mattered what Dick Cheney thought, or what any Cabinet official or Washington Post reporter or angry voter did. It may be that the CIA's descent into barbarity was an inevitable result of the invasion of Iraq. The actions of certain powerful individuals surely made the torture scandal worse, and the actions of certain other individuals may have made the scandal less horrible. But this is like the difference between people who are paddling fast or paddling slow to get away from the waterfall. Either way, they are all going over.
When we discuss atrocities like the CIA torture scandal, we should try to puzzle out the actual forces of nature that caused the atrocity. Just as a river is stronger by levels of magnitude than any individual swimmer, decisions made during time of war seem to always follow a natural logic that is far more powerful than that of any individual decision-maker's personality or character. In these situations, we begin to operate according to the logic of the herd mind, whose patterns do not resemble those of the individual mind at all.
What can a pacifist say about racism? A lot, it turns out. The pacifist perspective is badly needed when rage abounds, as it does right now following the decisions by grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City not to indict two policemen who killed two unarmed African-American men.
"American society's admiration for Martin Luther King increases with distance," writes Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, in an article subtitled with blunt words: "Violence works. Nonviolence sometimes works too."
Ta-Nehisi Coates has also been exploring the evergreen idea that racism can be corrected by war on his Twitter account, evoking the North's victory over the South in the American Civil War as a relevant moral victory, and declaring that:
A strange kind of anxiety can occur when attending a concert by an artist like Bob Dylan. I was struck by a sense of this anxiety as I stepped into Constitution Hall in Washington DC last night. I began to worry that it would impact my enjoyment of the show.
This can happen. A few years ago I attended an amazing Ralph Stanley show in a smoky nightclub in Virginia. All night long, I felt so overwhelmed by the fact that I was sitting there staring at one of the very inventors of modern bluegrass style, the small craggy old man calmly shredding his banjo strings in front of my eyes, that I forgot to tap my feet.
I think of this sensation as a form of anxiety because it's a self-disturbance, an unwanted reaction. When I have the privilege to hear a musical genius in person, I want to simply sit there and enjoy the music. I want my brain to be quiet while the sound waves soak in. Instead, I sit there pondering the significance to musical history. This happened to me in an especially bad way in 2006 where I luckily found myself at the famous Jay-Z concert in New Jersey where Nas came out to end his beef with Jay, and to share the mic with him on "Dead Presidents".
I was already very pumped at this point in the show, especially since Jadakiss, Sheek Louch, P Diddy, T.I., Freeway, Young Jeezy and Kanye had already been on stage -- so when Nas showed up, what did I do? I pulled out my phone and texted Caryn, and since this was 2006 and I wasn’t very handy with texting yet, this ended up taking a while, which distracted me from living in the moment itself. (Caryn later told me that she never saw the text anyway, as she had already gone to sleep).